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Puerto Rican Pullout
To better see the struggle to oust the U.S. Navy from Vieques, Puerto Rican filmmaker Frances Negron had to make herself invisible; she moved to Miami
BY CELESTE FRASER DELGADO
August 7, 2003
PHOTOS: Steve Satterwhite, Frances Negron, Maggie de la Cuesta
Smoldering rage: Young Viequenses destroyed property the Navy left behind
For the first time on a shoot, documentary filmmaker Frances Negron-Muntaner is afraid. Hundreds of bodies surge against her lean, five-foot two-inch frame at the front gate of what used to be, until earlier that day, Camp Garcia, a U.S. Navy bombing range southeast of Puerto Rico on the little island of Vieques. This was supposed to be a celebration of the end of 62 years of the Navy bombing the island, but the mob can't wait for the official opening of the gate at 12:01 a.m. Instead, as the organizers count down to midnight on a stage outside Garcia and tens of thousands of supporters cheer, a band of angry young men -- many with the delicately plucked eyebrows Vieques street toughs wear -- push against the chainlink fence until it gives way. Protected from the stampede by nothing but a baseball cap and the press pass around her neck, the 37-year-old Miami Beach resident urges her director of photography to follow. "We need to be over there!" she screams at David Gonzalez, a fit 39-year-old Miami native graying at the temples, who struggles to keep a digital video cam steady on his shoulder as he bounds into the former base. "Go! Go!"
Oblivious to the riot, a politico onstage recites the slogan that helped oust the Navy: "¡Paz para Vieques!" Meanwhile the toughs scramble atop a cement guardhouse inside the camp to put on their own show. Dancing with glee, one young man holds the blue-and-white flag of the island of Vieques and another waves the green-and-white flag of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. A third flies Puerto Rico's single-star banner, and a fourth torches a mock American flag with skulls painted on the blue background instead of stars.
Pinned against the stage outside, Negron's project coordinator Maggie De la Cuesta wards off an encroaching Univision news crew with a cigar. "If you don't back off, you're gonna eat that camera," warns the 40-year-old Cuban American with a cherubic face and linebacker build. A digital camera in her other hand, De la Cuesta snaps stills of Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon pleading for the rioters to stop. "You're breaking the law and it's wrong," the governor proclaims from the podium. The crowd boos. Bodyguards whisk her away. Maggie worries about Frances.
Inside the former base, Negron pushes Gonzalez toward the balls of fire being hurled at a Humvee the Navy left behind, and at a boat that belongs to the new occupants of the land, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She wants a closeup of a kid smashing an enormous hammer against the concrete wall of the guardhouse. His arched brows and enraged face are grotesque in the flames. Negron doesn't realize yet that this kid, known around the Vieques housing projects as Bozo, is the nephew of David Sanes, the Vieques movement's accidental martyr. Sanes was killed on April 19, 1999, when two 500-pound bombs missed their target. The security guard's death gave unemployed rebels like his nephew a cause and set off a massive civil disobedience campaign.
The Paz Para Vieques movement quickly spread beyond la isla nena. Puerto Ricans set aside political differences to rescue the island, used by the U.S. Navy and its NATO allies to train pilots for every battle from WWII through the first Gulf War. For 62 years, novices dropped live explosives, napalm, and depleted-uranium shells on a space roughly twice the size of Manhattan.
When the details of Sanes's death were leaked to the press -- he was blown to bits in his civilian watchtower -- activists, environmentalists, and religious leaders came from the big island and from the mainland for his funeral. The maddest among them stayed, setting up camps on the bombing range. Fishermen, who'd been playing cat-and-mouse with federal agents for decades while fishing in forbidden waters, outran the federales once again to ferry supplies to the campers. Kids like Bozo and his buddies put hoods over their heads and hurled rocks, intifada style, over the barbed wire fence. Up in New York, activists interrupted a Yankees game and one daredevil scaled the Statue of Liberty to drape "Peace for Vieques" banners from her crown. Singers Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony and New York Met Roberto Alomar joined a group of Puerto Rican stars to take out full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post, asking the Navy to leave. Roughly 500 people were arrested over three years, including N.Y. pol Al Sharpton, actor Edward James Olmos, "Livin' la Vida Loca" songwriter Robi Rosa, and environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy, Jr.; New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki flew down for a photo op; and wannabe Democratic U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton took a stand against the bombing. In January 2000, her husband Bill cut a deal with his pal, then Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Roselló: The Navy would be out by May 1, 2003.
Minutes after midnight, Bozo slams his hammer against concrete until a stolen Navy truck roars up beside him, toppling the guardhouse and pitching the flag wavers to the ground. The rioters pause in awe. Six teenagers on horseback gallop up from deep inside the former base, where a small fleet of vehicles left by the Navy burns. The young men thunder through what remains of the front gate. "Like knights in shining armor," Negron describes them later. "Like the horsemen of the Apocalypse."
In the chaos, Negron recognizes Tom MacKenzie, the amiable redheaded Fish and Wildlife flack down from the regional office in Atlanta. In an interview with Negron the day before, MacKenzie predicted a peaceful evening. The twenty Wildlife agents on duty tonight had planned nothing more than to direct people around the property and maybe point out a critter or two. Unprepared for crowd control, the agents flee. MacKenzie stays behind to photograph the rioters. The mob chases him away. Someone yanks the camera from around his neck. Someone smashes his glasses. Negron screams at Gonzalez to keep up with MacKenzie, but there are too many people in the way for a clear shot. Suddenly, nothing about Vieques is clear. Why, at the moment of victory, would the people riot?
"It's mind-boggling," says Negron on the day after the riot. As the film crew careens up and down the island's roller coaster hills in Luis R. Gonzalez's guagua, a green twelve-passenger Ford van, the director thinks aloud. "Anywhere else, [the riot] would mean that this is a people that wants to be liberated from the United States. If it doesn't mean that, what does it mean?" she marvels. "It's so hard to do a documentary of an unfolding story."
For the past three years, Negron has been documenting the Vieques struggle. She's interviewed all the major players from la isla nena to San Juan and from New York City to Washington, D.C. Add that to the archival footage she's scavenged from news services and home video bugs. Once she's back in the editing room at Capsule Media in Coral Gables, she'll have at least 60 hours of tape to edit down to an hour or so before submitting the documentary to the POV (Point of View) series on PBS at the end of the summer. She says she wants to show what goes on "behind the scenes" of the big decisions, but every time she opens a door, she finds another one beyond. Right now she's reshuffling everything in her head, trying to figure out the riot.
The director's dark eyes dart across the verdant branches that close in like tunnel walls around the narrow dirt roads, as she pumps her driver for information. On the news, Governor Calderon is blaming "outsiders" and "subversives" for the May 1 disturbance, but Luis knows better; he knows Bozo. That's why Negron hires the burly, bespectacled guagua operator every time she comes to Vieques. Luis not only knows everything that happens on the island; he knows where everyone lives.
In the seat behind the driver, David Gonzalez nods off next to his camera. He's more comfortable in the studio on a corporate gig than chasing mobs in the Caribbean, but as a third-generation Miami Puerto Rican he took this job because he wanted to learn about the place his grandparents came from. An American first, he blames the Puerto Rican government for this mess. As he sees it, the Navy paid millions of dollars every year to use the bombing range, but that money never left San Juan.
The motion of the guagua makes Maggie De la Cuesta nauseous. Since the crew is traveling light, they didn't bring the stand for the boom microphone, so during interviews she has to hold the long pole near the subject's head in an unchanging position in the unbearable heat. In between takes she keeps everyone in bug spray and aspirin. It's her job to make sure Frances eats. Born and raised in Philadelphia, De la Cuesta doesn't really care about Puerto Rico; what she cares about is Frances, her companion of eleven years. Maggie just wishes that these Vieques activists would come up with some new slogans. "Peace for Luis," she jokes, when the van makes it through a particularly tight squeeze. "Paz para Frances," she murmurs when the shoot hits a snag.
The crew is dressed in on-location uniform: plain T-shirts, caps, and comfortable pants. The neutral garb sticks out in a press corps decked in Peace for Vieques slogans. "Sometimes people look at us funny, because we're not very Paz Para Vieques," Negron observes. "They're wondering, which side are you on? Sure, we have feelings, but we're trying to get at the truth."
On the job, the director distances herself from the passion that has united nearly every Puerto Rican faction to fight against the bombing. Ever since the United States claimed the island as a territory in 1898, the number-one issue defining Puerto Rican politics has been the island's status. The three main political parties divvy up according to a desire for independence, statehood, or maintaining the status quo as a "commonwealth" ruled by the United States. Yet somehow, each party managed to make ousting the Navy from Vieques part of its own platform. Pro-independence leader Ruben Berrios established the first civil disobedience camp on the bombing range. Pro-statehood Governor Roselló cut the deal with Clinton. Pro-commonwealth Governor Calderon saw the deal through. "Vieques is like a stage where people come to push all kinds of agendas," explains Negron. "The people of Vieques are just spectators. They're left out of all decision-making power."
Negron can relate. The filmmaker describes herself as a "colonial subject," someone who watches her leaders put on a big show by blasting each other over the island's status, when in the end all the real decisions that affect the everyday lives of Puerto Ricans are made by the government of the United States. Reflected in the window of Luis's guagua, Negron sees herself in Vieques.
The guagua winds around and around Monte Carmelo, a mountain appropriated during WWII by the Navy then invaded and resettled in the Seventies by a community led by Carmelo Felix and his wife, Maria. From the mountaintop the view of the emerald island is breathtaking. While Gonzalez sets up the camera and De la Cuesta positions the boom, Negron briefs Maria Felix for the interview. Both women are sinewy and slight, but the resemblance ends there. The scholarly life has left Negron's skin pale and smooth, looking years younger than she is. Meanwhile the sun has etched bold lines in Maria Felix's face like a Taino mask. She could be 50. She could be 500.
During the interview there is a clatter in the kitchen; giggles from the lawn. Negron halts the shoot while Felix evicts a gaggle of grandchildren from the property. "Vieja loca," mutters an eight-year-old boy, rubbing his arm as he drags his sleeping bag down the dirt path.
Maria can hardly blame the kids for lessons they learned from her. When the Navy ordered the family to leave Monte Carmelo in 1989, she ignored the yellow eviction notices until the federales began loading her belongings into a truck. Then the Felix family rounded up the boxes of bees they kept out back.
"Now bees don't like to be moved," Felix tells the camera in guttural Bronx-ese, swatting her shoulders and thighs. The bees swarmed the federales. Nature herself conspired against the Navy. Today Maria and her husband preside over Monte Carmelo like modern-day maroons: no slave drivers; no Yanqui imperialists. Cue the salsa classic: Vamanos p'al monte/que el monte me gusta mas. Let's go to the mountain/I like it better up there.
The romance of revolution remains strong on the Puerto Rican left. For independentistas the struggle against the Navy is a step toward a total break with U.S. rule. "First Vieques, then Puerto Rico," said Independence Party leader Berrios, in an interview with Negron back in 2000. Asked what's next after the Navy has left, he tells her the same thing: "First Vieques, then Puerto Rico."
But that's not what Negron hears Maria Felix say. "We're not anti-American and we're not anti-military," the beekeeper is quick to point out. Like so many Puerto Ricans, Felix has lived much of her life on the U.S. mainland. Like so many Puerto Ricans, her husband Carmelo is a U.S. military vet. And like so many Viequenses, the Felixes don't see the fight going any further than their own back yard.
Like so many Puerto Ricans, Frances Negron migrated from the island to the mainland in search of a better life; but she went seeking intellectual freedom, not economic opportunity. In the academic household where Negron grew up in San Juan, the worst insult -- and greatest fear -- was to be "mediocre." The future filmmaker was bred to think big, yet the independence-statehood-commonwealth party lines threatened to strangle her ideas like a noose around her neck. "In Puerto Rico, one wrong word is all it takes to shut the door," she complains. "That's why I don't live there."
Apart from meeting Maggie, Negron found life in Philadelphia equally stifling. "At the time, in the early to mid-Nineties, Latinos were still stigmatized," she recalls. In her 1994 documentary of the gay rights movement in Puerto Rico, Brincando El Charco (Jumping the Pond), Negron plays her own alter ego, a woman who feels her choices in life are limited because she is a Latina in Philadelphia and a lesbian in Puerto Rico. Critically acclaimed, the film was shown in the 1995 Whitney Biennial, but that didn't make being a PR in Philly any more pleasant. Three years, two more documentaries, and a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship later, Negron took her prize money and moved to South Florida. "I came to Miami," she says, "to detoxify myself from being a 'minority.'"
On May 12, 1997, Negron and De la Cuesta unloaded their moving van in time to watch a tornado bear down on their new apartment on Miami Beach. The rare twister danced from Little Havana through downtown Miami across the Venetian Causeway and into Biscayne Bay. Ready to reload and head back to Philly, the panicked pair appealed to Maggie's brother, who came down from Broward to lend a hand. He prescribed Lario's on Ocean Drive for a strong dose of mojitos instead.
This is the beginning of the tale Negron loves to tell of how De la Cuesta finally learned to love being Cuban. "Maggie didn't want to go to Miami," Frances teases as the guagua circles the tiny island. "Then she found out, oh, there are advantages to being Cuban here." Negron ticks off cars, real estate, and everyday bargains her sweetheart has supposedly scored by bonding with compatriots. Maggie beams.
For her part, Negron joined the growing ranks of "Floricans": those educated, bilingual, bicultural professionals the census shows doubling the state's Puerto Rican population between 1990 and 2000. "We have a kind of a silent migration of thousands of people," says Raul Duany, leader of PROFESA, the national Puerto Rican professional organization founded in Miami in 1999. "We're underappreciated and overlooked. In South Florida we fall through the cracks with the large Cuban population."
Although Central Florida grabs most of the attention as a powerful new Puerto Rican enclave, the 80,000 Boricuas in Miami-Dade County are not far behind the 86,000 in Orlando -- and there are 200,000 Puerto Ricans in all of South Florida. "Two hundred thousand invisible Puerto Ricans," Negron quips -- and she doesn't mind one bit. As a Puerto Rican in Miami, Negron tasted the freedom of being ordinary. "I'm neither privileged nor underprivileged," she says. Neither a Cuban nor a spic.
Two years after arriving in Miami, the filmmaker won the prestigious South Florida Cultural Consortium fellowship for individual artists. Typically Negron, that wasn't enough. She marched into the office of Michael Spring, the director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, and said, The $15,000 is great, but if you really want a place where independent film is going to thrive, you need to start at the level of the screenplay. Why don't we form a program that provides a place where filmmakers can workshop their scripts?
"I was completely plowed," Spring recalls. "I really got an education and I didn't even know I was being educated. You just feel as though she's taking you along on this journey and you're immediately entranced by her intellect and her passion for the work."
Spring partnered up Negron with the Miami Light Project to form the Filmmaker's Workshop, a program that not only gives writers an opportunity to workshop scripts, but provides grants and in-kind services to produce independent films.
Spring remembers long conversations with Negron about the impact that the absence of a vocal Puerto Rican community here has had on her work. "I think she was almost happy," he recalls. "There was this degree to which her work was not being politicized here that gave it some freedom to breathe."
Far from the Puerto Rican fray, Negron found herself thinking and writing and making movies about Puerto Rico. "I did a lot of work from Miami," she says, looking back on the four books and three films she completed during her six years here. "Not in Miami. From Miami."
Negron did not have to toe any line on Vieques, because there is no line on Vieques here. "Miami's one of the few cities that didn't have protests on the Vieques issue," Negron observes. "It never made it as a big issue, as it did in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Puerto Ricans in Miami have not constituted themselves as a community that uses ethnic discourse to get things."
According to Felix Jimenez, author of the book Vieques and the Press, that distance works to Negron's advantage. "I believe that geographical detachment has been good for her project," says the professor of communications at San Juan's Sacred Heart University over the phone. "There has been no balance in the journalistic coverage of Vieques. Most people here are always on the frontlines, trying to paint harrowing or beautiful portraits of whatever their ideology is. Frances is trying to deeply understand this situation without those blinders. She's trying to listen in the silence and see in the dark."
That's what's so frustrating about the interview with Edgar Colon. At first Negron was thrilled when, resting her arms across the top of Colon's front gate on Friday afternoon, she coaxed the big shy man into an interview. Here was the man who was with Sanes on the day the bombs fell. He could tell the dead man's story. But there's too much noise. And the bombing survivor just. Can't. Convey. The moment.
On cue, former target control specialist Edgar Orlando Colon recounts in excruciating detail exactly what happened at the Camp Garcia Observation Post on the afternoon of April 19, 1999. He tells himself this story, in exactly this way, every hour of every day. He's down to three daily doses of Xanax, but not even pills can ward off the terror he feels whenever he hears thunder clap or a tire backfire. By the time Colon gets to the part about the two planes locked in a flight pattern above their target, he is practically in a trance. "We saw the plane pull up directly overhead," Colon says, his voice a flatline. "We radioed, 'Abort. Abort.' It was too late."
Gonzalez has Edgar in a tight frame, the camera trained from his shoulders up. De la Cuesta holds the boom just above his right knee. Colon's right hand shakes. His left squeezes a wad of paper towel that he uses to wipe the sweat off his head every time Negron stops the tape because a car passes or a rooster crows. Roosters crow often. "This is the Caribbean," Edgar smiles weakly between takes, mustering the remains of what once must have been a good sense of humor.
Any trace of an expression disappears when he resumes his tale. "I started to experience what they call 'tunnel vision,'" he drones. "I saw a dark spot on the ground and it was growing. Next to it, I saw what I thought was a small piece of glass. Everything started to go black. An officer started shaking me, saying my name. I saw that the dark spot was my blood and what I thought was a piece of glass was a whole window that had landed on the back of my neck."
A rooster crows.
Negron presses her hands against the headphones and winces.
"I'm really sorry," the director tells the trauma victim. "I need you to do that again."
De la Cuesta shoots her a dirty look.
"I'm not even going to say anything," Gonzalez shakes his head.
"It's just that this is so important," Negron protests. "I need it to be perfectly clean."
In her latest book, Negron takes a historical look at trauma as a defining characteristic of Puerto Rican identity: the trauma of being ruled by the United States since 1898; the trauma of being treated like a spic since the mass migration to the mainland after WWII. Edgar Colon is that trauma in the flesh. The director coaches Colon to tell his story with a little more emotion, to make his sentences more succinct and fill in pronouns with proper names, but Colon's sanity depends on keeping emotion at bay. He cannot change his story.
On Saturday morning, the crew is waiting for the guagua in front of the Hotel Amapola when Negron notices five men carrying an enormous wooden cross to the dock on the other side of Vieques's tiny seaside boardwalk. A rough map of the island is painted in red at the center of the cross, surrounded in shaky script by the legend No se perderá ni una vida mas viequense (Not even one more Vieques life will be lost). A small fleet of fishing boats is bound for the old bombing range to erect the cross beneath what has come to be known as Cerro David (David's Hill). Negron talks her way onboard the biggest vessel.
The filmmaker is seasick when the fleet approaches the bombing range, but she raises her head in time to see the red-and-white checkered observation post where Sanes was killed towering over a glorious beach that will never be open to the public. There is no way to clean up the layers of unexploded bombs buried beneath the sand or stop the spontaneous explosions as the casings crack over the years in the Caribbean sun. In the scrub beneath an enormous sign that reads "Danger Explosives," there is a spent canister with an empty bag spilling out of the top. The burned-out hull of a plane used for target practice sits in the hills.
After the boats drop anchor, the fishermen wedge the cross into a hunk of coral jutting into the sea. The men bow their heads solemnly as they listen to their leader, Carlos Ventura, an aging fisherman with sun-browned face, bushy gray beard, and round spectacles.
"This ceremony is for the comrades of the first act of civil disobedience on April 21, 1999," Ventura shouts over the crashing waves. "Now each of us will take a vow."
"We will fight."
"We will fight."
"For the return of the land."
"We will fight."
"We will fight."
When Negron interviews Ventura a few days later, the fisherman tells the camera: "The war that began in Germany in 1939 never ended in Vieques. It never ended until the first day of May." But even though the bombing has stopped, much of the island is still contaminated, most of the land now belongs to the Fish and Wildlife Service rather than the people of Vieques, and there are few prospects for jobs among the fishermen or the angry young men who led the riot. Maybe, Negron thinks, the war did not end even then.
Later Saturday afternoon, the guagua idles in front of the Vieques housing projects while Negron rounds the building with a bit of a cowboy swagger. She's dressed in black, her hair swinging beneath her baseball cap. She finds Sanes's nephew, José Montañez, in the parking lot, washing his car. Bozo looks much smaller than he did heaving a hammer at the riot, but Negron recognizes his delicate brows.
When Montañez saw his face on TV, he knew sooner or later the federales would come after him, but he never expected them to send a good-looking girl. Maybe that's why he agrees to an interview. "You know Miss Congeniality," he flirts, referring to the movie where Sandra Bullock plays an FBI agent who infiltrates a beauty pageant. "You're her."
Bozo wipes the suds off his hands and stands where Negron tells him. He tells how he felt when his uncle died and how he lost control when he got on the Navy base.
As he talks, his brows knit up, the freckles on his chiseled cheeks tremble.
"I felt rage," he says. "I just felt rage."
When the crew packs up and walks past the tiny patio that leads to the young man's government-subsidized apartment, a dozen bueyes -- fighting crabs of the kind young men used to poach off Navy and now off Wildlife land -- rattle against a cage. Seven weeks later, the federales do come for Montañez; on June 25 the FBI arrests Bozo.
On Monday morning, the guagua follows a white SUV from Camp Garcia's destroyed front gate down a long bumpy path with burned-out trucks and boats on either side. The rest of the crew is in the van, while Negron rides shotgun in the SUV beside Fernando Nuñez, a stocky twenty-year Fish and Wildlife Service vet with a broad smile shielded by a white straw hat. After his ordeal on May 1, the red-haired Tom MacKenzie has retreated to Atlanta.
The cars park at Red Beach, one of the first areas on the former Navy land open to the public. Already a few families and intrepid tourists are wading into the blue water.
"Before we start," Negron tells Nuñez with a frown, "the hat. It will throw a shadow across your face."
De la Cuesta holds the headgear while Gonzalez frames Nuñez against a wide expanse of white sand. Trying not to squint in the sun, Nuñez tells the camera that Wildlife is "heartbroken" about the riot because the agency had wanted to welcome people onto the land on May 1. "Maybe they thought it was Navy property and it was payback time," he speculates. "Maybe they also wanted to get back at us because we have the land."
Negron halts the shoot while a teenager cruises along the access road, revving the engine on a Seventies muscle car. Nuñez watches him pass. Before Sanes died, he says, the Navy looked the other way when the island's young men stole onto the land to poach bueyes. That's something Wildlife can't do. "Our mission is to protect and preserve natural resources for longevity," he explains. Besides, he claims, the crabs may be contaminated.
"A lot of people believe we are taking away their right to use the land," says the Wildlife agent when the taping resumes. "They ask us, where were you -- where was this agency -- when the Navy was bombing this land?"
For an answer, Nuñez directs people to Washington, D.C. "The only way we have to resolve the land problem is through the U.S. Congress and what they want right now is for Wildlife to be here," he argues. No amount of fuss on the island will change that.
In the meantime Nuñez believes Wildlife will be good for the community.
"If someday the land is returned to the people," he vows, "it will be returned better than we found it."
After six years in Miami, the same can be said for Negron. "Frances has made her mark here," says cultural affairs department head Michael Spring. "She's leaving something behind."
Last April, just before the Navy pulled out of Vieques, Negron decided to pull out of South Florida. Columbia University, the Ivy League institution in Manhattan, made the filmmaker an offer for a faculty position she couldn't refuse. Even if that means plunging back into the fever pitch of Puerto Rican politics in Nueva York.
"I'm thrilled for her, but I'm saddened about her leaving," says Spring. "Successful cities attract and cultivate creative and intellectual capital. Here in Miami, we've made tremendous strides in keeping our artists. We're not all the way there yet."
"It's a partial pullout," Negron promises, sitting among the boxes De la Cuesta has stacked in their Belle Isle condo. "Like General MacArthur," she jokes, referring to the great WWII military commander's promise to relieve his men in the Philippines, another island first occupied by the United States in 1898, "I shall return."